It is never a good idea when reading Ruskin with any seriousness to get too far away from that place where nearly everything that was of importance to him originated: his love of nature and its inexhaustible beauty.
He said as much clearly early in his still-wonderful-to-read autobiography, Praeterita (Post 19). All his early works, especially the five volumes of Modern Painters, reflect this love time and again. For the entirety of his life, nature was his anchor, his touchstone. He said–often–that, if things had worked out differently, he would have been completely content to have been a geologist, hiking through woods and mountains, small pick and small shovel in hand for examining closely and for putting in his carrybag to take home, the best specimens of the rocks and flowers he happened upon. At one point when he was despairing over the corrupt state of his society and lamenting about this road not taken, he said that, had he traveled it, he would have become the best geologist in Europe. No hubris there as anyone who has read the fourth volume of Modern Painters with any care can attest.
I’ve made some of the very best of his nature passages available in previous posts (to find them, move your cursor to the right hand column on this page and click on the box “Posts by Topic”; when the drop-down appears, you can select, among the various topics, “Nature”; click on it and you’ll be able to scroll back to as many of these passages as you like). Today’s offering puts another link in that lovely chain.
But with a difference.
Today, I want to underscore that Ruskin was much more than a lover of nature. He was its dedicated student. It was the fruit which emerged from these studies that made his nature passages so mesmerizing and inspiring, and left his readers hungry for more. Regularly, he would sit for hours by some scene that had entranced him, returning the next day or the day after as needs be, until he was sure that he not only had seen everything that was before his eyes, but understood how it all worked as well. Not infrequently, what he learned challenged commonly accepted views. To take one example from today’s passage, his rejection of our almost always uncriticized idea that rivers cut their way through the lands through which they pass; or, to take a second, his argument (an argument already under fire during his time and which, today, is rejected out of hand by many in ours) that, if you look carefully, it will become apparent that the risen land, of all types and in all places, had been created as a means of providing human beings with not only the water but all that they need to thrive.
But let him say it, in a passage that can still be found in that another wonderful work written in 1856 by Europe’s greatest geologist: Modern Painters IV.
[For a time, I thought to include some pictures as illustrations for the sentences below. But then, as was the case with the incredible passage describing the approach to and the facade of St. Mark’s basilica in Venice (Post 97), I got the better of this idea, and decided it might be better if what he has written comes to life as a series of images in your imagination–which, of course, was how the passage first came to came to life for all of those who read him in “the old days.”]
Every fountain and river–from the inch deep streamlet that crosses the village lane in trembling clearness, to the massy and silent march of the everlasting multitude of waters in Amazon or Ganges–owe their play, and purity, and power, to the ordained elevations of the earth. Gentle or steep, extended or abrupt, some determined slope of the earth’s surface is…necessary, before any wave can so much as overtake one sedge in its pilgrimage.
[H]ow seldom do we enough consider, as we walk beside the margins of our pleasant brooks, how beautiful and wonderful is that ordinance–of which every blade of grass that waves in their clear water is a perpetual sign–that the dew and rain fallen on the face of the earth shall find no resting-place, shall find, on the contrary, fixed channels traced for them, from the ravines of the central crests down which they roar in sudden ranks of foam, to the dark hollows beneath the banks of lowland pasture, round which they must circle slowly among the stems and beneath the leaves of the lilies? Paths prepared for them by which, at some appointed rate of journey, they must evermore descend, sometimes slow and sometimes swift, but never pausing, the daily portion of the earth they have to glide over marked for them at each successive sunrise, the place which has known them knowing them no more, and the gateways of guarding mountains opened for them in cleft and chasm, none [pausing] them in their pilgrimage–and, from afar off, the great heart of the sea calling them to itself! Deep calleth unto deep! [Psalm 42: 7] I know not which of the two is the more wonderful: that calm, gradated, invisible slope of the champaign land which gives motion to the stream, or that passage cloven for it through the ranks of hill which, necessary for the health of the land immediately around them, would yet, unless so supernaturally divided, have fatally interrupted the flow of the waters from far-off countries.
When did the great spirit of the river first knock at those adamantine gates? When did the porter open to it and cast his keys away forever, lapped in whirling sand? I am not satisfied–no one should be satisfied!–with that vague answer: the river cut its way. Not so! The river found its way. I do not see that rivers, in their own strength, can do much in cutting their way. They are nearly as apt to choke their channels up, as to carve them out. Only give a river some little sudden power in a valley, and see how it will use it! Cut itself a bed? No so, by any means. It will fill its bed up and then look for another, in a wild, dissatisfied, inconsistent manner: any way, rather than the old one, will please it. And even if it is banked up and forced to keep to the old one, it will not deepen, but do all it can to raise it, and leap out of it.
And although, wherever water has a steep fall, it will swiftly cut itself a bed deep into the rock or ground, it will not, when the rock is hard, cut a wider channel than it actually needs, so that, if the existing river beds, through ranges of mountains, had in reality been cut by the streams, they would be found, wherever rocks are hard, only in the form of narrow and profound ravines, like the well-know channel of the Niagara below the fall, not in that of extended valleys…
[And so] the great fact remains always equally plain, and equally admirable, that, whatever the nature and duration of the agencies employed, the earth was so shaped at first as to direct the currents of its rivers in the manner most healthy and convenient for man… As much as we shall ever need is evidently assigned to us for our dwelling place. The rest, covered with rolling waves or drifting sands, fretted with ice or crested with fire, is set before us for contemplation in its uninhabitable magnificence. And that part of which we are enabled to inhabit owes its fitness for human life chiefly to its mountain ranges, which, throwing the superfluous rain off as it falls, collects it in streams or lakes, and guide it into given places, and in given directions, so that men can build their cities in the midst of fields which they know will be always fertile, and establish the lines of their commerce upon streams which will not fail.
When you have a chance, take this passage to any place where the water flows and have a good long look. I think you will find that Ruskin was, and remains, right.
Until next time!
Be well out there!